Former Yale Provost and Dean Georges May Dies

Georges May, a leading scholar of French literature who held two top administrative posts at Yale University, has died at his home in New Haven at the age of 82.

Georges May, a leading scholar of French literature who held two top administrative posts at Yale University, has died at his home in New Haven at the age of 82.

The Sterling Professor emeritus of French at Yale, May was a native of France and naturalized citizen of the United States. His distinguished career includes such disparate stints as service in both the French and American armies during World War II and serving as Dean of Yale College during its transition to coeducation.

Having guided Yale College through a period of worldwide campus unrest as Dean, from 1963 to 1971, May was called upon in 1979 to serve as Provost of the University, the second highest position after President in the University administration. He held this position for two years. Previous to being named Provost, May had been chairman of the French department at Yale for one year (1978-79).

Considered one of the premier authorities on French literature of the 17th and 18th centuries, May published ten books in his field and countless articles in scholarly publications. His work on French enlightenment figures Denis Diderot and Jean-Jacques Rousseau is particularly noteworthy.

In 1964 Yale University Press published his edition of a manuscript by the French encyclopedist Diderot, which he had found in a private collection in Connecticut. He served on an international team of scholars assembling Diderot’s complete works and contributed his own edition of “La Religieuse” (The Nun) to the series. Works on the philosopher Rousseau written in the 1970s are still in print, having been reissued many times and translated into several languages. May’s edition of the correspondence between Rousseau and Mme de la Tour was published in France in 1998.

May was born in Paris on October 7, 1920 to Lucien and Germaine May. He attended a lycée in Paris, and went on to earn the equivalent of a master’s degree at the University of Paris in 1937. He enlisted in the French army in 1939, and after the fall of France to the Nazis in 1940, he moved to Montpellier in the south of France. Two years later, after earning another advanced degree (Diplome d’études supérieures) at the University of Montpellier, May crossed the Atlantic via Portuguese ship to the United States. He soon enlisted in the American Army, and from 1943-45 worked in military intelligence for the Office of Strategic Services (precursor to the CIA) in Washington.

May earned his doctorate at the University of Illinois in 1947, one year after he had joined the faculty at Yale as an instructor. He quickly rose through the academic ranks: from assistant professor in 1948, to associate professor in 1951 and to full professor in 1956. He gained one of the highest honors accorded to a Yale faculty member when he was named Sterling Professor in 1971.

Among the many professional associations and learned societies to which he belonged are the American Society for 18th-Century Studies, where he was president in 1974-75; the American Academy of Arts & Sciences; and the American Philosophical Society. He was a member of the Board of Directors of the American Council of Learned Societies for 10 years and its chairman for seven. From 1989 to 1992, he served as president of the Brussels-based Union Académique Internationale, a society of scholars in the humanities and social sciences.

In 1975, as Secretary of the Fourth International Congress on the Enlightenment, May planned the event, which attracted 700 scholars from around the world to the Yale campus.

In celebration of his 40th year at Yale, in 1986, the Visiting Faculty Program organized a day-long symposium. In 1990, friends, colleagues and former students presented him with a “Festschrift,” a collection of essays they had written in his honor. In 1992 he was given Yale’s prestigious William Clyde DeVane Medal for “distinction in lifetime scholarship and in undergraduate teaching.”

May held honorary degrees from the University of New Haven, Quinnipiac College, Wesleyan University and Albertus Magnus College.

In 1971 May was made a Chevalier in the French Order of the Legion of Honor.

He was married to the late Martha Corkery of Urbana, Illinois. He is survived by a brother, Jacques, two daughters, Anne May Berwind and Catherine May Dias, and one grandchild.

In lieu of flowers contributions may be made to a fund in Georges May’s name to be used by and for the benefit of the Yale University Library and sent in care of the Office of Development, Box 2038, New Haven, CT. 06520.

Georges May (1920-2003)
Quotations from his colleagues

“George May’s clarity of mind and graciousness of manner gave him brilliant success as an administrator. He delivered the most unwelcome messages with charm and with a twinkle in his eye that made him difficult to counter and impossible to resist. Over the course of four decades Yale drew on him again and again for leadership, wisdom, and counsel.” –Richard C. Levin, President of Yale University

“Georges May epitomized the best of western civilization. He combined the most distinctive and excellent qualities of the French and American spirit. He was a giant of the University in the mid part of the century, an especially beloved dean of Yale College whose grace improved everything, even a difficult faculty meeting.” –John Blum, Sterling Professor of History, emeritus

“Georges May was one of the most gracious, civilized, thoughtful scholars, teachers and administrators Yale has ever known. He operated on the highest plane of civility. He had the deepest kind of loyalty to Yale–a loyalty to its best values, to its culture, and to its ethos, of which he himself was a sterling representative.” –Howard Lamar, Sterling Professor of History, emeritus, and former President of Yale University

“Wise, learned, affectionate, Georges was for me much like an admired brother. He will continue to occupy a unique place in the warm memories–personal and academic–that go back half a century.” –Victor Brombert, Henry Putnam University Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and Comparative Literature, Princeton University

Share this with Facebook Share this with X Share this with LinkedIn Share this with Email Print this

Media Contact

Dorie Baker:, 203-432-1345